Man versus wild: Treat the remaining wild habitats as sacrosanct
The enemy is out there. Tigers, leopards, bears, snow leopards, wolves, wild dogs (albeit a handful), crocodiles, cobras, even (and especially holier than thou) vegetarians -- elephants, blackbuck, deer, wild boar, monkeys, parakeets -- rats and a host of buzzing biting insects loaded with deadly viruses and venomous stings.
We fight them in our fields, in our towns and villages, in our gardens, in our houses, in our kitchens and in our cupboards. We fight them with guns, crackers, traps, poison, fire, fury and lynch mobs. The battles claim victims on both sides.
And all too conveniently we forget one thing: We started it. All over the world, and particularly in the impoverished regions of the world , we bred like viruses and encroached upon their spaces. Consider this: Ranged against 1.3 billion of us are maybe 2,000 tigers. We razed their forests to the ground, dammed their waterways, blocked their ancient migratory routes, populated their spaces with noisy livestock – we invaded every aspect of their lives. Did we seriously expect no retaliation?
Elephants will stubbornly follow their ancient migratory routes, knowing that it is one way to keep themselves from bankrupting a single habitat. Put up a tea garden or coffee plantation in their way – and they will simply go through it. Traumatise them with crackers and fire, and they will seek refuge in the nearest village bar – and then really run amok. We tame these gigantic, calm beasts for ceremonies and processions during which they’re subjected to the most appalling din possible. Something has to give, especially if you are a tusker in musth loaded with 60 times the normal dose of testosterone.
Tigers need large areas to roam, and we congratulate ourselves on the back for setting up “protected areas” and “tiger reserves” for them. Except they’re usually far too small for their number (which is small enough) and through which now we’re building superhighways and elevated roads, and permitting livestock to eat up what really belong to the deer and antelope. When the carnivores kill cattle (because it’s easy and they’d starve otherwise) we get apoplectic and turn into lynch mobs. As for unprotected areas (where nearly one-third of our tigers live), we are flattening jungles in the name of ‘development’ and driving the animals out.
Some turn bad, into terrifying man-eaters, which, are exterminated, but many innocent animals suffer the same fate because we covet their skins and ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ made from their parts. Much to our horror, the cunning leopard, driven into the suburbs of cities (such as Mumbai and Gurugram) that are on the edges of forests, has learned to adapt. Dogs, pigs, goats, and occasionally small children, are now on its menu.
Snakes kill 50,000 of us – in fields and our homes – but usually because we’re stupid enough to step on them barefoot or let rats into our houses. Deer, blackbuck, wild boar, nilgai and parakeets are notorious crop raiders. It must be devastating for a marginal farmer to have a year’s crop destroyed in a single night of feasting. Monkeys – those hideous macaques have gone one better – have invaded our towns and cities and get away with plunder and pillage (and the occasional killing).
So how do we call a truce in this unending war? Treat the remaining wild habitats as sacrosanct. Stay away from them and have broad buffers where you can grow stuff (such as capsicum) that herbivores dislike. Fences strung with beehives is another nifty trick being tried to discourage rampaging elephants (they don’t like being stung!). Try and move forest dwellers out and give them something lucrative to do. Teach people, especially children, about wildlife. Tell them that animals will defend themselves to the death if their territories are invaded, their mates are flirted with or their babies are threatened.
There are many remarkable examples where locals have tolerated wild animals among their midst. The leopards of the Jawai hills in Pali district of Rajasthan are probably the most visible of their species in the country and have never harmed a soul. The Bishnois of Rajasthan are renowned for their love for animals and will protect them fiercely. All over the country there are examples of tolerance and mutual acceptance, where a village woman will walk past a tiger without batting an eyelid.
Unfortunately, our fuses are getting shorter and shorter – and with politicians lighting them left, right and centre, (in the hallowed name of ‘development’) the omens are ominous.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.
The views expressed are personal